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On The Similarities Between Girls And Aliens

I discovered, through the power of the search words that lead to my blog, that there was an incident at JavaOne that once again opens the can of worms that is Sexism In IT.

This Makes Me Sad.  I had a really positive experience at JavaOne.  In fact, I would say it was the one conference I've been to in the last 12 months where I felt like my gender wasn't a problem - I even got away with wearing hotpants (tweed is business-casual, right??) without being mistaken for anything other than a developer.

I know incidents like this cause a lot of tension, and I want to explore why.  Get ready for some gross generalisations: women get upset because they feel they're being marginalised or treated differently; men get upset because they think we're being over-sensitive, especially when the cause is something unintentional.  I sometimes wonder, as I'm sure other people do, if perhaps picking up every incident harms our cause more than advancing it.  But then I feel that the unconscious stuff is exactly the stuff that needs to be pointed out - if you don't realise you're causing a problem, you can't change your behaviour.

So what I wanted to do was... well, what I wanted to do was not rant about gender (again) and be a good little non-gendered programmer.  But then I thought that spreading a bit of understanding might be A Good Thing.  After all, we're all about continuous improvement, right?

I'm sure many people have been one of a minority at some point in their lives (brace yourselves for a litany of stereotyping) - the only man at their daughter's dance recital; the only white guy on a basketball team; the only straight guy in a gay bar (accidents happen!); the only girl on the development team... Speaking for myself, in those situations I'm not actually looking for things which prove that I'm Not One Of Them. I'm sub-consciously seeking reassurance that I'm not an alien, a freak of nature, the odd one out.

I've been in mostly male environments for the last 16 years - this is the norm for me, it's my life.  It freaks me out if I'm surrounded by women actually.  What's jarring and uncomfortable is when the difference of your gender becomes apparent: when all the t-shirts are boy-shaped and boy-sized; when someone makes a joke about "women"; when someone addresses the room with "Gentlemen" - or worse, they try and make up for it: "Gentlemen.  Oh, and Ladies.  Well, Lady <nervous smile>".  Thanks, that doesn't make me feel like an outsider at all.

Something else that really highlights the difference in genders is when you have plenty of women at the conference... but they're not the attendees.  They're manning the booths (marketing/sales or just plain hired "help"), they're taking tickets, they're dishing out the lunches.  In these cases, it becomes normal to assume that "girl" = "staff".  Not guest.  Not equal.

TradeTech was one of the worst examples of this that I've experienced.  Those (wo)manning the booths had been chosen for their aesthetics not their knowledge.  There was even entertainment consisting of scantily clad stilt-walkers - at a financial conference!  I made the mistake of turning up in a skirt - for those who know my dress sense, it was not one of my arse-length ones, it was just above my knees - and everyone assumed I was selling something. I had a job to persuade them that I had actually paid for my ticket.

So.  What am I trying to get at?
  • We're not trying to make you uncomfortable when we point out tiny accidental possibly maybe sexist or sexist-seeming comments/incidents.  We're trying to stamp out behaviour that can subconsciously be pushing women (or other minorities/groups) out of our industry.  We like it here, we want to stay, and we want others to join us.
  • It's very easy to alienate people who are not 100% comfortable in your environment.  Every time I see t-shirts in boys size only I'm reminded I'm Not One Of You.
...and what can we do?
  • Well, the t-shirts is an easy one.  So easy, and so stupid, you might not think it's worthwhile.  Especially as people like me don't even want your free t-shirt.  But I want to feel like you wanted me to want it.  Please stock some skinny-fit tees in multiple sizes, and stock smalls and mediums of the normal shape.  There are guys who would like this too.  Even if you can't get rid of your skinny tees, it will do wonders for your image.
  • Never assume your audience is all male.  Never even assume it's "mostly" male.  If your sister/girlfriend/mother/daughter might frown at something you're saying, don't say it.  You'll look like an idiot.  You can assume your audience is all technical, and joke about managers, or is all Java, and take the mickey out of C#.  Don't draw arbitrary battle lines based on gender/race/origin - any jokes should make all the audience feel included, not like specific individuals are excluded.
  • There's already been a lot said elsewhere about encouraging women speakers at events.  I'm totally behind this, but it's a fine line because I'm also totally against positive discrimination.  For the purposes of this blog, I would just say make sure you have some women on your speakers list, in the same way you would probably ensure you have a Java 7 talk, or a talk on the shiniest new technology, or other miscellaneous checkboxes you need to tick in order to make your conference a success.
  • Not sure what to suggest around many of the girls there being staff... I guess something simple like clear uniforms would stop people assuming female delegates are there to hand out lunch.  And making sure that your staff/helpers/organisers are of both genders too.
If you're interested in this whole topic, or want to tell me I'm wrong to my face, come along my panel at Devoxx - Why We Shouldn't Target Women.


  1. On the t-shirt issue, I found that as a conference organiser it was easier to just dispense with t-shirts altogether. The trouble was that we always fell into one of the following situations:

    1. Get all male sizes and end up offending anyone who wanted a female size.

    2. Get some female sizes and then end up having lots left because the minimum order was always greater than the number of people who wanted them.

    It's hard enough to get the S/M/L/XL/XXL ratio right without having to guess the number of fits too.

    (Perhaps male/female sizes isn't the best way to differentiate, but that is how most custom t-shirt sellers seem to describe them).

  2. I can appreciate the problems. Would people really mind if t-shirts weren't given out?

  3. Why is gender/race/origin different to manager/C#? Why is it okay to offend a segment of the audience, so long as it's not something you care about? What about if you got sent to a management conference by mistake, and the guy up front started making snide comments about how awful it is trying to get a bunch of techies to actually do things in the interests of the bottom line?

  4. Actually Tom I totally agree with you. I don't think you should make jokes that take the mickey out of anyone, I think it makes you look petty.

    The point really is that if you must draw battle lines, make sure it's something that brings your audience together.

  5. I certainly wouldn't miss a t-shirt. I'm notorious for savaging the tees that I'm given when I volunteer for events. Sharp scissors and Sharpies are good. And when the event is over, into the rag bag they go.

  6. I'm almost completely with you. But I just can't help nit-picking on this t-shirt issue. Let's be honest, who really flaunts a tshirt they got at some conference with any sort of style? I generally wear them when I'm doing yard work or hanging around the house. There throwaways as far as I'm concerned. Including that as an anecdote for why gender is still marginalized in the tech sector weakens your argument imo.

  7. Drew it's a good point, and I don't disagree with you. I nearly removed all references to t-shirts before I posted this because I thought it seemed a bit petty. But... it actually highlights my primary point - in my *personal* experience, I haven't seen anything major which marginalises or objectifies women (apart from the so-called entertainment at TradeTech). What we have right now are small things, easy to fix things. They seem insignificant (like the stupid t-shirts) but the impact they have in alienating people is disproportionate to the effort required to fix them.

    Of course I have no intention of brushing under the carpet some of the more outrageous things that happen to women at conferences, I'm trying to highlight that even the good ones, where everyone is trying to do the right thing, still end up with some people feeling like they're not included.

  8. @Drew: obviously you and I have totally different workplaces. Where I work every developer related t-shirt gets worn to oblivion. I really can't understand why since the quality usually is lousy. It's the same with the crappy bags that gets handed out. They're used until thread bare.
    (one good thing about the bags: my kids love them!)

    Anyway, I usually use my mother as the one to be explained to. If I know an area (computer related) well enough to be able to explain it to my mother, then I'm actually quite good.

  9. well since we are including stereotypes:
    pointing out that computer programmers have a somewhat awkward relationship with women is kinda like pointing out that japanese people eat a lot fish.
    a lot of programmers (myself included) are just...uncomfortable around women. the two mix but only in the most awkward way. that may change with age though.

    now, while im awkward around women, and i know a lot of programmers who are ALSO awkward around women, i know there are a lot who are just fine with women and know just what to say to not offend or be ridiculed but there are quite a few who do not and im sure that unease (and perhaps an underlying sense of chauvinism) contribute largely to your unease

  10. I do notice (here comes one more probable overgeneralization) that NT women (you seem very likely one of these) feel about as out of place if not more so than us NF men. Neither Jungian temperament, let alone as attached to gender, really fits the predominant expectations of our society. Apparently NF comes from a prenatal predominance of estrogen, NT from a prenatal predominance of testosterone - so you can predict the potential problems for the tomboys and (shall we say) "janegirls" that result.

  11. @rakkav that's a very interesting point. But... I would think (just my gut feel) that people of both genders who float somewhere around the boundary of where our society states our two genders should be separated, should feel closer to each other than the rest of "normal" society. And I think our industry, being somewhat outside society's norms, is a good place for this.

  12. @tus that's very valid and worth bringing up. However my counter to that is that the females of our species who are programmers are (generally) *much* more used to you guys - who claim to be less comfortable with our gender - than we are with alpha males or girly girls. We are used to your discomfort, and have many ways of dealing with it. LIke I said - I have 16 years experience of working with you lot and I know you do not have the same experience working with "my lot" - the onus is on us to be understanding of you, and that's fine.

    But understanding your discomfort is not the same as allowing people's dismissal of our position.

  13. T-shirts: one company I worked for uses the American Apparel unisex tees. The fit is smaller so you need to add a size category and the shirts are more expensive, but they definitely look much better. (and they're better quality)

    Not sure what to suggest around many of the girls there being staff...

    I think this is the toughest nut to crack, because at some level we actually want it to be this way. And by we I mean society in general.

    Women are just better at drawing people of both genders to a particular booth. Heck they seem to be better at selling in general.

    Just take a look at the magazine racks in the grocery store. Nearly all of the women's magazines have women on the cover. At least half of the men's magazines also have women on the cover. So we use women to sell to both sexes.

    Balance of sexes

    I'm of a mixed mind here. I'm honestly not convinced that there are "too few" female speakers relative to the requirements for speakers.

    Speakers have to be experienced. Even looking back 10 years, there was a very small percentage of women in my comp sci classes. We're talking 1 in 10. So the pool of available women is not very large.

    Speakers also have to be abnormally driven. Public speaking is a #1 fear for humans. Conference speaking is also a "high-risk" activity. It's time consuming, it's public-facing, highly visible, highly judged, and the rewards are far from guaranteed.

    Women, in general, are more risk averse. So if you think of conference speaking as "high-risk", then you've shrunk the pool even more.

    And then there's the sampling problem. Most developers never do any public speaking. If 1% of developers ever do public speaking, can we truly expect a "normal" distribution on an activity that is otherwise "abnormal"?

    So how do we measure "too few female speakers"? It's clearly about expectations, but I've never seen anyone with a good breakdown of expectations.

    So I'm going to conclude that we have enough female speakers in IT, until someone can point to me good research that says otherwise.

  14. For me, "too few" is none at your event. I've seen a couple of events without a single female speaker. That, I think, we need to get away from. But other than that, I'm fine to have the number of women speakers representative of the number of women in our industry. I am also not keen on just shoving women up there because they are girls, they do indeed need to be suitably experienced and comfortable at presenting. Otherwise it taints the female "brand", if you like, to push sub-standard presenters into the limelight simply for ticking some boxes.


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